Feb 17, 2021
"Elon Musk sent a thank-you note to
Tesla's workers returning to work," Business Insider squeals.
Walmart teams up with UPS to air an ad "thanking essential
workers." "Jeff Bezos Just Posted an Open Letter to Amazon
Employees About the Coronavirus. Every Smart Business Leader Needs
to Read It," insists an article in Inc.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,
corporate leaders, politicians and celebrities have been quick to
paint "essential workers," and those often described as "frontline"
workers, as heroes — laborers conscripted, presumably against their
will, into a wartime-like scenario of heroism and sacrifice as our
country battles the ongoing coronavirus scourge.
The sentiment behind this rhetoric
is understandable, especially from everyday people simply trying to
express their deep appreciation for the underpaid labor doing the
work to feed, house, care for and treat everyone else. But when
deployed by powerful politicians and CEOs, the "essential workers
as heroes" discourse serves a more sinister purpose: to curb
efforts to unionize, preemptively justify mass death of a largely
black and brown workforce, protect corporate profits and ultimately
discipline labor that for a brief moment in spring of last year,
had unprecedented leverage to extract concessions from
As Wall Street booms and America’s
billionaires see an increase of $1.1 trillion in wealth since March
2020 — a 40% increase — while the average worker suffers from
unemployment, depression, drug abuse and a loss of healthcare, it’s
become increasingly clear that “essential” never meant essential to
helping society at large or essential to human care or essential to
keeping the bottom from falling out, but essential to keeping the
top one percent of the one percent’s wealth and power intact and as
it turned out to be the case, massively expanded.
Indeed, 2020 saw the largest
transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in decades, a transfer
largely made possible by the essential worker as hero narrative,
with little discussion or debate. In March 2020 everyone agreed in
this wartime framing that was going to send off millions of poor
people to their deaths for a vague, undecided greater good of the
quote-unquote "economy," when really it was for the seamless
maintenance of Wall Street profits.
On this episode, we explore the
origins of the concept of "essential work" and those deemed
"essential workers"; how it's been used in the past to discipline
labor during wartime; how hero narratives provide an empty,
head-patting verbal tip in lieu of worker protection and higher
pay; and why so few in our media ask the more urgent question of
all: whether or not low wage retail, food, farming, and healthcare
workers ever wanted to be heroes in the first place.
Our guest in Ronald Jackson, a
worker and organizer with Warehouse Workers For Justice.